Insights

Medal honors Dr. Jonas Salk's invention of a polio vaccine to eradicate 1950s scourge

Coin Lore column from the Sept. 15, 2014, issue of Coin World
By , Coin World
Published : 08/31/14
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Polio was the scourge of childhood in the 1950s and the stuff of nightmares. It came each summer, leaving death and misery in its wake. Fearful parents everywhere prayed for deliverance or cure.

The paralyzing disease primarily attacked children, though more than a few adults, famously including Franklin Roosevelt (stricken in 1921), had taken ill, too.

On the eve of World War II, Roosevelt founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. The foundation’s annual charity drive — the March of Dimes — raised money to fight the disease.

After Roosevelt’s death in 1945, the Mint honored him by placing his portrait on the dime, a denomination chosen because of the door-to-door March of Dimes campaigns.

March of Dimes money funded Dr. Jonas Salk’s groundbreaking research — research that led to a vaccine that conquered the disease.

After Salk’s vaccine was determined to be “safe, effective and potent” April 12, 1955, Congress appropriated $30 million to pay for free vaccinations for all children, 26 million in 1955 alone.

Summers, once again, were safe. “What had the most profound effect,” Salk recalled years later, “was the freedom from fear.”

Astounded and grateful, President Dwight D. Eisenhower asked Congress to award Salk a congressional gold medal.

The medal was authorized in 1955 and Gilroy Roberts designed the 3-inch medal. The obverse shows Salk’s bust and is signed and dated G. ROBERTS 1955 on the truncation. The reverse shows an allegorical grouping of a woman holding a shield bearing a medical caduceus protecting a boy and a girl.

The medal was presented to Salk Jan. 27, 1956, by Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Marion B. Folsom.

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